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American Football in the UK Part 2: Learning to play as an adult

This is the second article in our series where I'll discuss what American Football is like in the UK. We'll go through what the sport is like here, what it's like to play at university and more as we build up to the big day when the Redskins face the Bengals this season.

NTU Renegades in pregame huddle
NTU Renegades in pregame huddle
James David Brocklehurst- jbefotography

Thanks to everyone for the support and feedback on the series so far and the podcast. I had no idea that HogsHaven had such an international set of readers and am excited to hear everyone’s stories. As I talk to more and more people it’s easy to see how this series can go on for longer than I first thought and that’s really exciting. Also I'd like to give a special shout out to our team photographers James Brocklehurst and Dave Tidswell. Their work is incredible and they are both letting me use their photos for this series.

Last week I discussed how people pick teams while in the UK. I also mentioned that I play for the Nottingham Trent University Renegades, not to be confused with our cross town rivals the University of Nottingham Students, that would be like calling me a… again I don’t refer to that team by name but they have a star on their helmet and there’s a TV show sharing their city’s name. Anyway… this week I’ll talk about how the setup of American football at universities in the UK allows people to learn the game and learn to love the game.

My team, the NTU Renegades, have a variety of players. These include players that played at junior levels and come in knowing the game, players that have played for other universities before switching schools, and players that play on senior teams between seasons. Some players have never played American football; others haven’t even watched the game that much. A lot of players have played rugby or football (soccer) before but some have played other sports. We also have some players who haven’t played as part of a team before.

Because of this you get to see people pick up the game at different rates. It’s also pretty funny to watch players on the sideline cheer because their teammates are yelling when they don’t really know what happened on the field. But no judgement here, the rules of American football are as foreign to people who haven’t watched it before as the rules of cricket are to me.

Tom Crumpton forcing fumble against the University of Nottingham James David Brocklehurst- jbefotography

Tom Crumpton forcing fumble against the University of Nottingham

In the case of players that have never played football before, you get a unique experience. It’s a bit of a mix of high school football and university football. You have players that have never played the sport before but that have full grown, or at least adult bodies. A lot of them played rugby or other sports so they could have a decade of physical sport experience but have no idea what a 4-3 defence is at the beginning of the year.

A lot of the physicality of rugby translates over to football, but there are major rule differences and the games are structured very differently. The most obvious difference is you can’t pass the ball forward in rugby, one of the biggest aspects of football. So for a while you get players who can run, hit, and catch but might not know where to line up or be. It’s fun to see players grow and see when things finally click.

I fall somewhere between the players that had never played before and the ones that had. I was born in October and I imagine I saw a football game the week I was born. But I had never executed an outside zone block or tried a cut block, to be honest I still can’t cut block. But I took to football like a duck to water. The film study, the physicality, the family, the training. It was like I was living every sports movie I had ever seen. The overly emotional speeches, the pure elation of a last second victory. Honestly I can say it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life.

Sean Michae's gameface Dave Tidswell

Sean Michael's game face

In many ways it’s living a dream for me. I was overweight in high school and it affected my life pretty dramatically. I could lift loads in the weight room but when a player for my high school’s football team asked me what my 40 time was and I told him that I didn’t have one; not because I hadn’t clocked one but because I could only run about 30 yards before having to stop.

I’ve since lost quite a bit of weight and while I’m no wide receiver I can run around and do our sprint drills. The level of play in the UK at university is different than the US. That isn’t meant to be a dig at my team or the UK but I don’t think any player here would claim teams here are going to crank out NFL talent on a regular basis, at least where we are right now. We have great players that work hard and I would love to see them move on to play past university but at least speaking of myself, I couldn’t block Ryan Kerrigan if you gave me a 2x4.

Of course, not everyone in the UK has lost loads of weight which prevented them from playing a sport they love but honestly the setup here still provides a similar opportunity to people who love the sport. You can start playing as an adult, use the knowledge you’ve learned from watching the game or pickup from study and practice and can use a full grown adult body to throw people around and hit people without getting in trouble.

University ball here is much more of a club sport in terms of experience and the money involved. We play for fun and to be part of a family. Of course we play to win and get better but a ton of the reason to do it is to genuinely enjoy yourself.

Overall I think the setup here allows players to play the game and be part of a team. You get the entry level of being able to be part of the team because you’re interested but the full team experience including inter university play. Sure, we have players who don’t get to make it on the field but they’re still part of a team that travels around the country playing a sport at university and are part of the team by helping us practice and study. Playing football as an adult in a setup like this is something that I wouldn’t have had the option to do in the US because again, I’m not Trent Williams.

I’ll try to keep these to about this length because honestly I could go on for hours. Here’s a recap of the posts that are already part of this series and ones that are on the way. Please share your feedback and ideas for how to improve the series and what you’d like to see in the future.

Past articles from this series:

Who is this Sean bloke and picking teams in England

Articles on the way (not in order that they’ll appear):

Watching the Super Bowl in the UK

Rugby vs Football

The setup of American Football in the UK

Building football through youth teams